Stress is an emotion stemming from both positive and negative events that can have long-lasting. physical and mental effects on our dogs. While a little bit of stress can be a good thing for a dog, as it can act as a motivator for learning and growth, too much of either positive or negative stress can result in a dog living over it’s threshold and then resorting to unfavourable behaviours.
There are many things that can cause stress in a domestic dog. The level of stress experienced in any given situation will vary from dog to dog…each dog is an individual and has their own strengths, weaknesses and coping mechanisms. Some dogs may find a trip to the vet extremely stressful and shut down before even going through the door, whereas others may bound into the vet office happily looking for treats. In general, stress occurs and builds up when a dog’s basic needs are not being met. The longer the needs are denied, or the more that are not met at any given time, the faster stress will build up and the sooner a dog will be pushed over it’s threshold. Being denied the proper amounts of good quality food and water, not receiving proper care for illnesses and/injuries, not being allowed to ‘be a dog’ and just be allowed to bark, run, chase, dig, have proper interactions with humans and other animals etc. can all be stressful for an animal. Living in fear of objects, people or other animals will also cause stress levels to increase…even if the fear seems to be ‘unjustified’ to us. Perceived threats are enough to stress a dog who does not have the coping strategies to manage facing novel objects, people or situations.
When a dog is experiencing stress there are physiological changes that begin to occur inside the body immediately. The sympathetic nervous systems (a division of the autonomic nervous system responsible for involuntary responses in the body) begins initiating the fight or flight response and the hypothalamus releases glucocorticoids, like adrenaline and cortisol, from the adrenal cortex that work to regulate the response. To prepare the body to fight infections, the immune system is also activated. The heart starts to beat faster, respiration rate increases, and the pupils dilate. Digestion is not longer a priority as the body is preparing to run from the threat, or perceived threat, or to stay and fight it off. The brains concern, first and foremost, is to survive and the dog’s body systems are being flooded by hormones to help with this.
Due to the physiological changes occurring inside of the dog’s body during a stressful time, we also see outward behavioural changes. These can differ from dog to dog and vary depending on the level of stress being experienced. Dogs experiencing long term stress can suffer from a compromised digestive system as their body is stuck in the fight or flight response. They may not be willing to eat their regular food amounts or eat too quickly and this can result in toileting issues. Because of hormonal imbalances in the body, a stressed dog may have trouble sleeping and so might be restless, pacing and constantly changing their resting position. Previously quiet dogs may begin to bark more frequently, appear more hyper-vigilant and withdrawal from interactions they used to otherwise enjoy. Self-mutilation (chewing on paws or licking to the point of creating an open wound) might also be observed in the cases of severe stress.
If we are careful observers of our dogs, and have taken the time to understand what their common behaviours look like when they are generally happy and comfortable, then we can notice when things change and be on the look out for signs that they are beginning to feel some stress in a situation. Dogs communicate their stress in subtle ways, but if we know what to look for than we can intervene early and help them through it. Panting and pacing are more obvious signs that a dog is uncomfortable, but we may also see a dog yawning to release facial tension, licking their nose and lips and shedding more than normal. Sometimes dogs will do a full body shake to relieve tension or engage in displacement behaviours such as scratching themselves or sniffing the ground. While these behaviours are an attempt on the part of the dog to decrease attention coming their way and to ‘appease’ a threat, people often misinterpret these as signs that a dog is just choosing not to listen or focus. But not understanding these subtle signs and leaving our dog in a situation that they are not coping well with we may be setting our dog up to advance to choosing more aggressive ways of communicating their stress.
Preventing and alleviating stress in our dogs is important for their physical and mental well-being. We can easily work to prevent stress from building up by making sure that are dogs are benefitting from receiving everything laid out in the Five Freedoms, which outlines the basic needs to ensure a happy and comfortable life. By understanding and recognising the most subtle signs of stress, we can identify when it is time to remove our dog from a situation, or increase the distance between them and the stressful event, and give them time to ‘decompress’ in a quiet and calm space. Dr. Tom Mitchell and Lauren Langman of Absolute Dogs talk a lot about the importance of instilling calmness in our dogs to help them better deal with stressful situations throughout the day. They recommend that every dog work through the ‘Calmness Triad’ every day…periods of active rest, engaging in passive calming activities like long lasting chews or frozen kongs, and calmness protocol where they are rewarded for displaying calm behaviours. If our dogs are living in a default state of calmness, then when stressful things happen that ‘add to their stress bucket’ and get them closer to their threshold, they are better able to manage appropriately as they are spending most of their time way below their threshold – the likelihood of them getting to a point where they cannot cope is decreased.
If our dogs have specific triggers that require more specific strategies, then working with a professional to help build their overall confidence and to create a behaviour modification plan may be needed. Regardless of how we feel about the event causing our dog’s stress, we should never force them into those situations if we can help it, but rather work with them away from the situation to better prepare them for the situation in the future. Knowing that our dog does not control his/her reactions when experiencing stress is important…they need our guidance and support to overcome their fears and to get to a place where they can use their thinking brain, rather than relying on only their survival brain to deal with stress.
Do you have a dog who struggles with stress? Get in touch for strategies on how to help.